It makes intuitive sense that chronic stress would impact our health. Sometimes we can feel the physical manifestation of stress in our gut, that icky feeling in the pit of our stomach.
Yet many of us have become so accustomed to hectic lifestyles, that our baseline of stress is much too high and we may not even notice how stress is effecting us.
What Do You Consider Stress?
There are two forms of stress:
Stress can be from a real or perceived threat. Your nervous system is sounding an alarm and readying the body to respond quickly.
When I taught childbirth preparation classes, I talked about this quite a lot. When the body or mind senses a threat, non essential processes come to a halt. Back then I was talking about labor coming to a halt with stress, now I focus more on the effects of stress on digestion, which also can come to a halt with stress.
In both cases, what we think about, who is with us, and our psychological and physical histories play a part in how our systems function.
Stress is supposed to be a short term solution to increase our chances of survival, not a long term plan.
Ten Ways Stress Impacts Our Health
1. Increased Belly Fat
When we are experiencing stress our body responds by signaling the release of cortisol. Elevated cortisol causes an increase in the fat around the waist and organs, called visceral abdominal fat.
This is a dangerous kind of fat. It produces cytokines, which causes inflammation. Extended inflammation from visceral abdominal fat can increase your risk for heart disease, vascular disease, blood sugar issues, depression and dementia.
2. Food Intolerances, Sensitivities, and Allergies
While stress doesn't cause food intolerances, sensitivities, and allergies, it can intensify them.
When the body is stressed, it releases histamines which makes existing allergies worse. Stress can also make the gut more sensitive to food intolerances, sensitivities, and allergies. The reverse is also true, stress can increase when feeling the symptoms of food intolerances, sensitivities, and allergies.
Click here for more information on food intolerances, sensitivities, and allergies.
3. Leaky Gut
The body secretes mucin to protect against damage to the small intestine and colon during stress. However, when stress is chronic this function can become exhausted, which affects the mucosal barrier thus contributing to the development or aggravation of leaky gut.
Read more about leaky gut here.
4. Elevated Blood Sugar Levels
The body releases glucose into the blood when stressed. This fuels our ancient flight or fight response by passing sugar along to our muscles to prepare to fight or escape danger.
The problem is that at the same time, cortisol is being released by the body when stressed which prevents the body from producing insulin, which is the hormone that carries glucose into your cells. This results in too much glucose in the blood, elevating blood sugar levels. This can set your body up for insulin resistance, which is what happens when glucose can't get into your cells.
5. Increased Inflammation
I've been writing quite a lot about chronic inflammation. Click here to read the Chronic Inflammation Blog Series.
When we are experiencing chronic stress, we can enter a feedback loop of stress increasing inflammation and inflammation creating more stress. Stress induced inflammation can lead to anxiety and depression.
6. An Altered Microbiome
Stress also effects microbiome diversity. The more stressed you are, the less healthy bacteria will typically exist in your gut. Both mental and physical stress can affect the microbiome.
Read more about maintaining or achieving a healthy microbiome here.
7. Increased Acid Reflux, Indigestion, GERD, and Ulcers.
This is probably the most obvious impact of chronic stress. Interestingly, the amount of gastric acid produced does not change, but our response to it does change.
Many people experience obvious gastrointestinal issues when they are chronically stressed. The quick fixes can often lead to more problems, when stress and lifestyle changes are the real solution.
8. Intensified IBS symptoms
As I mentioned above, stress increases the sensitivity in the gut. A person experiencing irritable bowel syndrome is already experiencing gut hypersensitivity, so chronic stress increases triggers and intense flare-ups.
Focusing on stress reducing and calming exercises are especially important for people with IBS.
9. Increased Risk of Developing Small-Bowel Intestinal Overgrowth, or SIBO
When we are healthy, the bacteria in our gut are balanced. However, when we are constantly in fight-or-flight mode, due to chronic stress, the motility in our small bowel slows so the bacteria can't be swept through in a timely manner.
This results in an increased risk of small-bowel intestinal overgrowth. The slower the transit time, the higher likelihood of developing SIBO, especially in people experiencing chronic stress.
10. Impaired Immunity
During acute stress, immune function is enhanced. When chronically stressed, though, excess cortisol suppresses immune function. This is why you're more likely to get sick when you're chronically stressed.
The Body Isn't Designed to be in a Constant State of Stress
When our body perceives that it's in a constant state of fight-or-flight, whether it's a real threat or a worry, our health is damaged.
We don't digest well, which can lead to digestive issues, poor absorption of nutrients, elevated blood sugar, and weight gain.
Chronic stress also results in an elevated supply of hormones, like cortisol, in the bloodstream. Eventually chronic stress simply wears the body out.
While we can't eliminate stress all together, you can become more aware of your stress levels, manage or eliminate stressors that you can control, and implement relaxation and coping strategies to optimize your health.
Do you feel like you may be experiencing chronic stress? What are your primary stressors, and how do you feel you experience stress? Please share in the comments below.
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Hi, I’m Crystal!
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